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8 Climatic Facts About Our Abnormally Warm Winter

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It was warm this winter. Freakishly warm, in fact. It was warm enough that we probably should have felt guilty for enjoying it so much. After all, any time you can open your windows when you’re supposed to be shivering and watching travel shows for warmth is a strange situation. Most of the United States just lived through one of the warmest Februarys on record to close out one of the warmest winters on record. Here are some statistics that will show you just how unusually balmy it’s been for the past three months.

1. THIS FEBRUARY WAS WARMER THAN NORMAL.

A map of how warm this February was compared to previous years. Stations showing a ‘1’ experienced the warmest February ever recorded at that location. Image Credit: SERCC

 
It shouldn’t come as any shock that February’s temperatures were above-average when you crunch the numbers. Out of 888 weather observing stations across the lower 48, a solid 60 percent of those stations (or 534 locations) saw their top-10 warmest February on record this year. Even worse is that 186 of those locations—scattered from the depths of Texas to the Canadian border—recorded their all-time warmest February, with some records stretching back more than 100 years.

2. THE WHOLE WINTER WAS WARMER THAN NORMAL.

Not only was this past February a record-breaker, but the whole winter was warm on average. Data from the Southeast Regional Climate Center shows that over half of those 888 weather observing stations in the contiguous United States saw this winter place among the top ten warmest winters ever recorded, with almost all of the toasty stations residing east of the Rocky Mountains. Most of the all-time warmest winter records were set in the southern part of the country, including cities like Houston, Texas, and Raleigh, North Carolina.

3. THE WARMTH KEPT MOST OF THE SNOW AT BAY.

Taken just one day apart in early February, two views of the downtown Manhattan skyline—one warm and sunny, the other obscured by snow—as seen from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Image Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

 
As you can imagine, you’re not going to find very much snow when it’s relatively toasty out there. There have been other winters with less snow than most places saw this year, but the differences are negligible. Take Washington D.C., for example. Washington National Airport, which sits just across the Potomac River from the capital city itself, typically sees about 15 inches of snow every year. They’ve recorded just over an inch of snow this year. On the list of least-snowy winters in the nation’s capital, this winter ranks fourth since records began in 1940.

4. CHICAGO SAW NO SNOW IN JANUARY OR FEBRUARY.

Even more unusual is the fact that Chicago went through the entire months of January and February without seeing one lick of snow cover the ground. According to the city’s National Weather Service office, this was the first time in the city’s 146 years of recording weather observations that they didn’t see any snow on the ground during the dead of winter. The city saw a foot-and-a-half of snow spread out over several storms during the month of December, but all of that snow melted by Christmas. The most they’ve seen since then is a “trace” of snow, which is snow that falls but instantly melts when it hits the ground.

5. THE GREAT LAKES WERE RELATIVELY ICE-FREE.

While we’re looking toward the Midwest, it’s worth noting that the Great Lakes were surprisingly ice-free this season. The five lakes only saw about 15 percent of their surface covered by ice during the season’s maximum extent on February 8, and what little ice did form this year is rapidly melting as warm air continues to bathe the enormous bodies of water. Since NOAA began keeping records back in 1973, a typical winter sees a little more than half of the Great Lakes covered with ice during the peak of winter, but the coverage has been as low as 11 percent, a record achieved in 2002.

6. THE LEAVES LOVED IT, THOUGH.

A map showing how unusually early (or late) leaves first showed up on trees in 2017 compared to normal. Image Credit: USANPN

Humans aren’t the only organisms enjoying the reprieve from winter’s grip. The USA National Phenology Network tracks the extent of trees budding and growing leaves as spring begins to set in. According to their observations, almost every part of the United States that has leaves on its trees right now saw those leaves appear a full three weeks ahead of schedule—what it calls "very large anomalies." This is welcome news for the birds and the bees, but if there’s a sudden cold snap in March—which isn’t unheard of—it could do some serious damage to any plants that are suddenly more vulnerable than normal.

7. THE WARMTH LED TO SOME SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS.

When you put an active weather pattern together with warm and unstable air, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll wind up with strong thunderstorms at some point. We saw several rounds of severe weather this spring, resulting in at least three fatalities on the last day of February. Severe weather is fairly common in the southeast due to its proximity to muggy air over the Gulf of Mexico, but severe weather stretched unusually far north this year. A tornado that touched down in western Massachusetts on February 25 was the only tornado ever recorded in the state during the month of February, and quite possibly the farthest north we’ve ever seen a tornado since reliable records began in 1950.

8. SO WHY HAS IT BEEN SO WARM?

Why has it been so warm in the east and so cool and active out west? It has to do with the jet stream. For the past couple of years, there’s been a huge ridge in the jet stream over the West Coast that kept them warm and dangerously dry, while the jet stream dipped south and brought cooler, more active weather to the rest of the United States. That pattern broke this year, essentially reversing itself and keeping the warmth-inducing ridge out east while the jet stream in the west keeps dipping south and bringing them a steady stream of rough weather. One theory as to why the pattern flipped is the disappearance of the infamous “Blob,” a nickname given to an unusually warm area of water in the northeastern Pacific Ocean. That water cooled off, which may have allowed the jet stream to readjust itself into the pattern we’ve seen this winter.

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Weather Watch
3 Ways We Can (Kind of) Control the Weather, and 5 Ways We Can't

Humans have the incredible ability to control the world around us. We can move mountains and land robots on other planets. We can keep each other alive longer than ever before and even bring entire species back from the brink of extinction. But despite all of our leaps forward, we're still unable to control the weather, a tremendous force that affects every human being on this planet. Still, humans have come up with some pretty crafty ways of influencing the weather—in small doses.

1. WE CAN MAKE IT RAIN … SOMEWHAT.

The desire to control weather has been a mainstay of imagination since, well, the beginning of imagination. The fortunes of entire societies can hinge on flood or drought. We have strong motivation to want to create a rainstorm in one spot or moderate snowfall in another. But the greatest success we've ever had is a technique that can (maybe) encourage a tiny bit of rain to form over a tiny area.

Cloud seeding is a process through which fine particles like silver iodide are released into a cloud in order to encourage the formation of rain or snow. These particulates serve as a nucleus around which water vapor can condense and turn into a raindrop or a snowflake. This is most commonly done with small airplanes, but it can also be accomplished by launching tiny rockets or flares from the ground.

In theory, the practice of cloud seeding could have innumerable uses around the world, including crop maintenance, providing drinking water, and even possibly weakening severe thunderstorms or hurricanes. There's only one problem: It doesn't work all that well.

The effectiveness of cloud seeding is a hot topic of debate among scientists, but most studies have either found negligible impacts on precipitation, or the researchers were unable to determine the exact impact of cloud seeding. Cloud seeding is a great concept if you want to help one cloud produce a little extra rain or snow just to say you can do it, but it's not the way to go if you're desperate and want to trigger a deluge. This process requires the pre-existing presence of clouds, so even if the technology improves in the future, it's not a viable solution for drought-stricken areas that haven't seen meaningful clouds in weeks.

2. WE CAN DEFINITELY ATTRACT LIGHTNING USING ROCKETS.

Lightning safety is one of the things you learn from a very young age. "When thunder roars, go indoors," as the motto goes. We learn to stay away from open areas and water during thunderstorms. But what if you wanted to attract lightning? It's surprisingly easy to do if you have the right equipment and really, really want to encounter some of nature's fury.

Scientists who want to study lightning can bring it right to their doorstep by using specially designed rockets attached to conductive wires that lead to the ground below. When a thunderstorm blows over the observation station, operators can launch these rockets up into the clouds to trigger a lightning strike that follows the wire right down to the ground where the rocket was launched. Voila, instant lightning. Just add rocket fuel.

3. WE CAN CREATE CLOUDS AND HEAT—EVEN WHEN WE DON'T MEAN TO.

Most of the ways in which we control—or, more accurately, influence—the weather is through indirect human actions—often unintentional. "Whoops, the nuclear power plant just caused a snowstorm" isn't as crazy as it sounds. Steam stacks can and do produce clouds and updrafts with enough intensity to create rain or snow immediately downwind. The very presence of cities can generate microclimates with warmer temperatures and heavier rain. And there's also climate change, the process in which our accumulated actions over a long period of time are influencing the very climate itself.

BUT WE CAN'T DO THE FIVE FOLLOWING THINGS.

Despite our limited ability to influence a few aspects of weather over small areas, there are some rather colorful conspiracy theories about whether or not governments and organizations are telling the whole truth about how much we can accomplish with today's technology. There are folks who insist that the trails of condensed water vapor, or "contrails," left behind jet aircraft are really chemicals being sprayed for sinister purposes. (They're not.) There are theories that a high-frequency, high-power array of antennas deep in the Alaskan wilderness can control every weather disaster in the world. (It doesn't.) There are even folks who insist that Doppler weather radar carries enough energy to "zap" storms into existence on demand. (Dr. Evil wishes.)

There are also some bizarre and unworkable theories that are offered in good faith. A meteorologist a few years ago opined on whether building an excessively tall wall across middle America could disrupt weather patterns that could lead to tornado activity. And every year the National Hurricane Center is peppered with questions about whether or not detonating nuclear bombs in a hurricane would disrupt the storm's structure. Unfortunately, while pseudoscience offers up great theories to test in the movies, when it comes to weather, we're still not in control.

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Weather Watch
NASA Figures Out Why When It Rains, It (Sometimes) Drizzles
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What’s the difference between drizzle and rain? It has to do with updrafts, according to new research by NASA scientists into the previously unexplained phenomenon of why drizzle occurs where it does.

The answer, published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, could help improve how weather and climate models treat rainfall, making predictions more accurate.

Previously, climate researchers thought that drizzle could be explained by the presence of aerosols in the atmosphere. The microscopic particles are present in greater quantities over land than over the ocean, and by that logic, there should be more drizzle over land than over the ocean. But that's not the case, as Hanii Takahashi and her colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory found. Instead, whether or not rain becomes full droplets or stays as a fine drizzle depends on updrafts—a warm current of air that rises from the ground.

Stronger updrafts keep drizzle droplets (which are four times smaller than a raindrop) floating inside a cloud longer, allowing them to grow into full-sized rain drops that fall to the ground in the splatters we all know and love. In weaker updrafts, though, the precipitation falls before the drops form, as that light drizzle. That explains why it drizzles more over the ocean than over land—because updrafts are weaker over the ocean. A low-lying cloud over the ocean is more likely to produce drizzle than a low-lying cloud over land, which will probably produce rain.

This could have an impact on climate modeling as well as short-term weather forecasts. Current models make it difficult to model future surface temperatures of the Earth while still maintaining accurate projections about the amount of precipitation. Right now, most models that project realistic surface temperatures predict an unrealistic amount of drizzle in the future, according to a NASA statement. This finding could bring those predictions back down to a more realistic level.

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